I made the lunge like I had countless times in the past. The volleyball speeding towards me was just a little out of reach… for a split second. I could get there. I always have.
For four straight years my summertime volleyball games were fun, a nice workout, and a good mid-week relief from working on racecars constantly. My skills at the sport had improved and I met some new friends outside the Northeast pit area circles.
This particular day featured a simple picnic pickup game in my parents’ backyard. Being healthy and in my 20s, I was not afraid of throwing my body around for a point. A shot was coming to my right but was going to land in bounds. I lunged toward the ball’s path in a manner I had made so many times. My right foot dug into the grass and I pushed off to reach my target.
My knee buckled. For an instant my thighbone moved independently from my shin. My right leg, which is supposed to only hinge one way at the knee, shifted laterally and the pain roared through me.
I fell onto the ground and clutched my knee. The area swelled within seconds, it hurt enough to yell, and I sure couldn’t walk. My friends helped me back to the house while they supported my weight. Talking was difficult while my teeth were gritted so hard. My anterior cruciate ligament was torn.
My immediate future consisted of ice packs, painkillers, surgery and physical therapy. The ligament was repaired with a graft off my patella and screwed together. The repair made in 1997 still holds, and so do the vivid memories of the painful injury and eight-week recovery experience.
Today Denny Hamlin suffers from a torn ACL and quite simply wows me. His ligament was torn a few months ago and he continues to walk. I sure couldn’t. I could barely put any weight on my leg at all. Hamlin has been seen getting around the garage area all year and to be honest, I don’t know how he did it.
He won in Martinsville while suffering from the injury. When I was home alone I had to crawl along the floor simply to get to the bathroom.
If his ACL reports were not in the media, I never would have guessed he was having any kind of difficulty. And barely over a week following surgery he was in his Cup machine in Phoenix turning practice laps. Barely over a week after my surgery I could not get off the couch. I relied a lot on others for mobility.
I watched Hamlin climb through the window, and buckle in a racecar. Granted his speed in and out of his seat was slow. His speed on the track was not. He set the first practice’s quick time with his repaired ACL.
I am not sure what technique Hamlin uses to drive. Many racers use two feet on ovals. Right foot gas and left foot brake, different from how most of us drive on the street with our right foot being the primary control for both pedals and using the left only for the clutch.
Crash damage and battery failure contributed heavily to Hamlin’s poor placing at Phoenix. Passing judgement on how much of a factor his knee played in the race is difficult.
Based upon my experience, Hamlin’s performance in 2010 is impressive to say the least. My torn ACL gave me a taste of what having a handicap is like on a daily basis. Hamlin is winning on the NASCAR Cup Series with the same injury. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is providing an excellent example of why racecar drivers are athletes.
(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who contributes to the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)
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